Creating The Perfect Air-Combat Duo


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The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratories (AFRL) and Lockheed Martin have demonstrated a mixed formation of manned and unmanned F-16s in a simulated combat environment. The “Have Raider” demonstration at Edwards Air Force Base in California included two phases.

In the first phase, Have Raider I, focused on formation-flying. Have Raider II sent the pilotless F-16 on a mock bombing run through “dynamic” enemy defenses. “This demonstration is an important milestone in the maturation of technologies needed to integrate manned and unmanned aircraft in a strike package,” Capt. Andrew Petry, an AFRL engineer, said. “We’ve not only shown how an unmanned combat air vehicle can perform its mission when things go as planned, but also how it will react and adapt to unforeseen obstacles along the way.”

Have Raider is an extension of the Loyal Wingman program, which AFRL launched in mid-2015, hoping to develop technologies that would enable autonomous fighters to accompany human pilots into combat. “You take an F-16 and make it totally unmanned,” deputy defense secretary Bob Work explained in March 2016. The unmanned jet could haul extra weaponry to bolster the manned plane’s firepower — or fly ahead of the manned jet to distract enemy defenses or absorb some of their fire.

According to, The Loyal Wingman technology gives the human pilot in a mixed manned-unmanned section the ability to issue general commands to the pilotless plane — attack, join formation, etc. But the UCAV can hold formation without direct control and can carry out much of its ground-attack mission without any human input. Currently, it’s not clear who would authorize the UCAV to drop bombs or fire missiles. U.S. military policy dictates that a human operator must authorize a drone to deploy weaponry. Presumably, the pilot in a manned-unmanned formation would be responsible for commanding his robot wingman to open fire. The ultimate goal of the initiative is teaming up manned stealth fighters with unmanned versions of older jets — in order to boost the lethality of both in air combat.

The Loyal Wingman concept could also work with other planes and drones — some already in service, others still on the drawing board. Cadets at the Air Force Academy in Colorado designed a stealthy target drone that could be compatible with the Loyal Wingman software.

The Pentagon is also developing what it calls an “arsenal plane” — a B-1 or B-52 heavy bomber modified to launch weapons at targets designated by aircraft, potentially including UCAVs, flying ahead of the bomber. The same principles of manned-unmanned teaming underpinning the Loyal Wingman effort could apply to the arsenal-plane idea, too.

The US isn’t the only one developing mixed, piloted and pilotless formations. The Japanese defense ministry’s Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Agency launched its own so-called “Combat Support Unmanned Aircraft” concept in 2016, aiming to eventually build a robotic wingman for the future F-3 manned fighter.